The program for the Madison Symphony Orchestra's February concerts in Overture Hall opens with rather a throwaway piece: the fifth and last of Edward Elgar's marches entitled "Pomp and Circumstance." Only the first of that series is well-known, and this last is little more than a repetition of a tired, jingoistic formula, written by a tired, burned-out composer in his last years. Hardly worth the attention.
Beethoven's "Emperor" concerto, his fifth and last for piano and orchestra is, on the other hand, one of the great masterpieces of the literature. Its guest soloist this weekend is the acclaimed young pianist Simone Dinnerstein, who is not only a very interesting personality but a highly intelligent if still-idiosyncratic musician.
Her performance is very well thought out, and perhaps too much so. She seems determined to create a juxtaposition of the work's inherently "imperial" flamboyance with an exaggeration of its quieter moments, as if she wants to meld this concerto with Beethoven's more gentle Fourth. The flamboyant passages are treated with rigid calculation, while the quieter one are prettified to the extreme, with a lot of eccentricities of phrasing and dynamics. Thus, in the flanking movements, episodes follow one another in disjunct character, disrupting continuity. The gloriously serene middle movement is paced almost as a dirge, its poetry made self-conscious.
It is an interesting performance, no doubt, and at times a very impressive one, certainly distinguished by Dinnerstein's beautifully crystalline tone. This is already a great pianist, but she needs to get over trying to do things differently for the sake of being different, and settle down into being a genuinely artistic interpreter -- for which she is certainly most qualified. As an encore on Friday evening, however, she demonstrated her notorious hyper-elastic, overly Chopinesque approach to the music of Bach, in the sarabande from his Third English Suite -- willfulness she should grow out of.
The remainder of the program is devoted to the final fifth, the Symphony No. 5 of Sergei Prokofiev. This overtly nationalistic and patriotic work, composed at the end of World War II, can work itself up into quite an ecstatic frenzy, and music director John DeMain ratcheted up such elements into a gloriously raw and melodramatic orgy of sound. But, throughout the work there are also poignant reminders that Prokofiev was a genuine melodist, and nowhere more so than in the third movement. Much of that sounds almost like an overrun from his great ballet score, "Romeo and Juliet," even when the composer's penchant for passingly crude orchestration (a bit tactlessly criticized, it is said, by his colleague Shostakovich) sometimes intrudes. DeMain achieves notable eloquence there, within a generally powerful interpretation, to which the MSO players respond wholeheartedly.
Repeat performances are Saturday the 19th at 8 p.m. and Sunday the 20th at 2:30 p.m.